Korea is rich in history and culture, so it is no surprise that the Korean entertainment industry boasts of many award-winning and successful historical dramas. But aside from the historically and culturally enriched genre in the series, the shows are lauded for their creative storytelling and strong depiction of characters, with (almost always) tragic and heart-wrenching endings.
Below are nine highly recommended historical Korean dramas from 2010 to 2018 that are also recipients of several prestigious awards, both from local and international film fests and award-giving bodies.
The Slave Hunters (2010)
The Slave Hunters follows the story of a young nobleman, played by Jang Hyuk (Tell Me What You Saw), whose love for the sister of his family’s slave turns his life into a wreck. He then endures 10 years on the streets while making a name for himself as the slave hunter and looking for the woman he loves, played by Lee Da-hae (The Good Witch). Eventually, he is hired to track down a runaway general, played by Oh Ji-ho (Never Twice), who is wrongly accused and framed. The hunt begins, and he eventually finds the general, who happens to be romantically involved with the woman he has been searching for all these years. The series was a huge hit, topping the ratings chart consistently for seven weeks, with an average rating of 31.7%, peaking at 35.9%. The show’s success even landed lead actor Jang Hyuk a nomination for Best Actor in the 2011 International Emmy Awards for his performance.
Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010)
Back in the time where women are not allowed to have education, work, or a position in the society, a young woman disguises herself as her brother so she could support her family by doing various jobs designated for men. In hopes to increase their family’s income, she becomes a substitute test-taker for her brother in the upcoming entrance examination in the esteemed Sungkyunkwan, a prestigious educational institute in the dynasty, which is considered an illegal act. Starring Park Min-young (When the Weather Is Fine), Park Yoo-chun (A Girl Who Sees Smells), Yoo Ah-in (Chicago Typewriter), and Song Joong-ki (Arthdal Chronicles), the historical rom-com drama is based on the 2007 bestselling novel “The Lives of Sungkyunkwan Confucian Scholars” written by Jung Eun-gwol. Sungkyunkwan Scandal also aired in over seven Asian countries.
The Princess’ Man (2011)
Starring Park Si-hoo (King Maker: The Change of Destiny, ongoing), Moon Chae-won (Mama Fairy and the Woodcutter), Kim Yeong-cheol (My Country: The New Age), Hong Soo-hyun (The Rich Son), Song Jong-ho (Arthdal Chronicles), and Lee Soon-jae (Pegasus Market), the romantic historical series centers on the forbidden romance between the daughter of a monarch and the son of a political enemy, while struggling behind a political coup. Considered as the Korean take on the classic love story of Romeo and Juliet, The Princess’ Man also highlights betrayal, tragedy, and warring families. The show went on to win a lot of prestigious awards, including nominations and wins from international award-giving bodies such as the Monte-Carlo Television Festival and New York TV Festival. It also aired in several countries across Asia.
Tree With Deep Roots (2011)
Based on the novel of the same title written by Lee Jung-myung published in 2006, Tree With Deep Roots follows the story of a royal guard on a revenge mission, played by Jang Hyuk (Tell Me What You Saw), who attempts to uncover the truth behind the serial murders of the Jiphyeonjeon scholars in Gyeongbok Palace, and the king who creates Hangul (the Korean alphabet), played by Han Suk-kyu (Dr. Romantic 2), as his in-laws are brutally killed by his father. This was Han Suk-kyu’s TV series comeback after 16 years of only film projects. The show won the Grand Prize (Daesang) for TV as well as the Best Screenplay (TV) in the 48th Baeksang Arts Awards back in 2012.
The Moon Embracing the Sun (2012)
The Moon Embracing the Sun tells the secret love story set during the Joseon Dynasty between a king and a female shaman (both fictional characters), amidst a conspiracy and struggles of a political conflict. It stars Kim Soo-hyun (The Producers), Han Ga-in (Mistress), Jung Il-woo (Sweet Munchies, ongoing), and Kim Min-seo (Witch at Court) and was based on a novel by the same title by Jung Eun-gwol published in 2005. In its prime, it was recorded as the most profitable drama series for MBC, achieving a peak audience rating of 42.2% nationwide for its episode finale. Its broadcast rights were bought by eight Asian countries. Along with its awards from local award-giving bodies, the show also won several honors in international film and TV award ceremonies such as the 18th Shanghai Television Festival Magnolia Awards in 2012 and the 46th WorldFest-Houston in 2013.
Empress Ki (2013–2014)
Starring Ha Ji-won (Chocolate), Ji Chang-wook (Melting Me Softly), Joo Jin-mo (Big Issue), and Baek Jin-hee (Feel Good to Die), Empress Ki revolves around a Goryeo-born woman ascending to power amidst the era’s class-systematized society and discrimination against women. She later on marries the emperor of the Mongol Empire and becomes a monarch of the Yuan dynasty. The show also centers on the deep love the Emperor has for Lady Ki, who is overflowing with political ambitions. A Taiwan drama channel reported that the series ranked as the best foreign program in 2014, with a 5.35% audience rating, the second K-drama to be able to do so after Jewel in the Palace in 2003. The series received mixed feedback from its audience, with some praising it for its gripping plot, scenes, and character performance, and others expressing their concern over the portrayal of the Empress in the series as opposite that of the real-life Empress Ki where it was based on.
The Roots of Throne (2015–2016)
Winning a total of 16 awards from different award-giving bodies, The Roots of Throne served as the loose prequel of the 2011 hit series Tree With Deep Roots. It follows the struggles and ambitions of six people who became the foundation of the Joseon dynasty, with a young prince as its central figure. Starring Yoo Ah-in (Chicago Typewriter), Kim Myung-min (The Miracle We Met), Shin Se-kyung (Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung), Byun Yo-han (Mr. Sunshine), Yoon Kyun-sang (Class of Lies), and Chun Ho-jin (Once Again, ongoing), they portray the conflicts and successes of the characters amidst a political chaos. Among the six main figures, the characters of Yoo Ah-in, Kim Myung-min, and Chun Ho-jin are based on real-life historical figures while those of Shin Se-kyung, Byun Yo-han, and Yoon Kyun-sang are fictional ones.
Love in the Moonlight (2016)
A coming-of-age romance set in the 19th-century Joseon Dynasty, Love in the Moonlight centers on the unusual romance between a crown prince and his eunuch, whom the prince later discovers is a woman disguising herself as a man. Based on the novel Moonlight Drawn by Clouds serialized on Naver back in 2013, the drama series was a huge hit. It achieved a peak audience rating of 23.3% and consistently topped viewership, topic, and brand reputation charts, with its influence later referred to as the “Moonlight Syndrome.” Due to its consistent high audience ratings, there were discussions for an extension but the series eventually ended with its initial plan of 18 episodes. It stars Park Bo-gum (Encounter) and Kim Yoo-jung (Clean With Passion for Now).
Mr. Sunshine (2018)
Mr. Sunshine is first set in the Joseon period and follows the story of a boy who was sold into slavery but flees to the United States following the 1871 US expedition to Korea. Years after, the boy eventually becomes a US Marine corps officer, played by Lee Byung-hun (IRIS), and goes back to Korea where he inevitably meets and falls in love with a Joseon noblewoman, played by Kim Tae-ri (Little Forest), who is also the sniper of a resistance group. Eventually, he uncovers a plot by foreign powers to seize Korea, and he struggles to fight for Joseon’s freedom. The series was written by one of Korea’s top writers, Kim Eun-sook, and directed by Lee Eung-bok, who were both behind the success of Descendants of the Sun (2016) and Guardian: The Lonely and Great God (2016–2017). It was lauded for its impressive cinematography and deep narrative of the activists fighting for Korea’s sovereignty. It is one of the highest rated K-dramas in the history of cable television.